Aram Shishmanian

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by Gareth Huw Davies

Sunday Times (London)
December 4, 2005, Sunday

Lending your time and skills to help a worthy cause can prove worthwhile for purely selfish reasons, says Gareth Huw Davies.

EVERY Wednesday afternoon, 24-year-old Chris Knell leaves his job as finance officer at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and takes a Tube train to Shoreditch, where he adopts a new identity.

For half a day a week he works as an unpaid trustee of Headway East London, a charity for people with brain injuries. Knell is the company secretary.

The charity sees him as a good catch. It is not just his commitment -this is rarely in question among Britain's 728,000 voluntary trustees. More important is his youth -unusual in a sector dominated by middle-aged white men.

Last summer the Charity Commission, together with the charity TimeBank, launched a campaign to lower the age of trustees in 190,000 charities and bring in more women and people from different ethnic backgrounds. Only 15,000 charity trustees are aged between 20 and 30, the commission estimates. And only one in seven is under the age of 40.

And tomorrow, chancellor Gordon Brown is expected to give a boost to the voluntary sector in his pre-budget report. His proposals could include offering cash inducements for 16 to 25-year-olds to take up "gap year" placements -which might include serving as trustees -in Britain and overseas.

One "sweetener" proposed by a government-backed commission last March was to pay part or the whole of a young person's university tuition fees in return for voluntary work.

For Knell, payment is not a consideration, as he is already in full-time work.

"Chris is a really good example of how to combine charity work with a job," said fellow trustee Shelaine Green. The former European marketing director for Yahoo, now a full-time volunteer, ticking both gender and age boxes in the commission's wish list, is one of the most enthusiastic recruiters of trustees in the sector.

"He is our star young trustee. We are able to help him with training as company secretary, which is very good for his career development."

Knell, who has been involved in charity work for much of his life, chose Headway East London when he moved to London last year -he suffered head injuries in a childhood accident and wanted to help victims.

"My own expertise is in finance, but I have done much more here. I'm now doing project work and board development, and this will be very useful on my CV."

The Charity Commission believes the growing willingness among businesses and other parts of the public sector to encourage their staff to become trustees is one way charities may be able to fill vacancies. It estimates that at least half of them find it difficult to fill the unpaid positions.

Geraldine Peacock, chair of the commission, said: "Being a trustee does not have to be purely altruistic. It's also an opportunity for people to develop new skills and improve their career prospects.

"Trustees sit at a table making strategic decisions. These people are technically and legally responsible for everything that goes on in the charity. They are very important."

The biggest charities employ their own staff to carry out the standard management functions, and look to trustees to scrutinise the way the charity does its job.

But thousands of smaller charities, such as HEL, rely on trustees with specific skills to fill a wide range of roles. Trustees are not normally paid, and generally receive only travel expenses.

Aram Shishmanian, a management consultant of Armenian extraction, came to his first trusteeship through emotional ties with his family's homeland. He was invited to become a trustee of the 1988 Armenian earthquake appeal.

"I thought charities were a retreat for the blue-rinse brigade, but the experience has been phenomenal," he said.

A trustee for the Marie Curie Cancer Care for the past five years, Shishmanian believes the demands of working for a charity would benefit anybody in middle or senior management in public sector or industry.

"Sitting on the board of the charity, you see the whole spectrum -business strategy, finance, marketing, HR, the whole show.

"So, if for no other reason, I would encourage any ambitious executives who eventually want to become a chief executive to work part-time for a charity. They will be challenged far beyond what they could imagine. It is not just about using their marketing or legal skills, it is about understanding how to run a competent organisation."

Shishmanian believes charities will have an increasing need for able trustees.

"Charities need people who can challenge the executive, guide them through what needs to happen and broaden their perspectives, because often they are quite narrow in thinking about their vision.

"They need people who are impartial, who come from a more analytical background.And permanent staff need coaching.

"Some finance directors have spent their whole careers in the charitable sectors and are somewhat blind to what the rest of the world is doing.

"They benchmark themselves against other charities. People like me can apply rigour and outside analysis. We can look at issues, crystallise problems and formulate solutions. To do this to improve the lot of suffering people is deeply satisfying."


AS a general rule, trustees are not paid. However, payment is sometimes justified for people with legal or financial skills on the grounds that a paid trustee improves the running of the charity by raising the professionalism of the board, and it would cost more to buy in those skills.

All trustees should be reimbursed for genuine costs incurred in their role. Some bodies give trustees 'expenses' that are more correctly payments, such as a fee of £ 5 per meeting, compensation for loss of earnings, or paying for a telephone line.

Some 5,000 charities have been registered so far this year, so there is no shortage of vacancies for trustees.

Bodies advertising for trustees include Y Care International (looking for 'skills in international development, youth work, campaigns'); The Hackney Marsh Partnership ('skills in finance, employment and training, health and safety'); The Circus Space (runs a degree course in circus arts, wants 'expertise in higher education and arts funding'); and charitable trust Barnsley Premier Leisure ('find the next Beckham, Henman or Radcliffe').

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